TAMPA — Gary Milano wants every airline passenger who's stood in an airport security line — for better or worse — to know this: His folks are trying to do the best they can.
Milano, 58, is the bay area region's federal security director for the Transportation Security Administration. That means he oversees the screening of passengers at Tampa International Airport, St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport and Sarasota Bradenton International Airport.
He is in charge of the TSA's operations and 920 employees in 14 counties around the bay area. It's also his job to carry out TSA Administrator John Pistole's new approach to securing commercial air travel.
Instead of treating every passenger the same way, the TSA is now starting to look at air travelers based on how the agency perceives their level of risk. Tampa International Airport in particular has become a lab of sorts as the TSA experiments with "risk-based security."
The TSA was formed after 9/11, which is also the reason why Milano joined the agency in 2002. The New York native started out as a prosecutor. He was an assistant district attorney in the Bronx, then a trial attorney for the Department of Justice, then rose to become criminal division chief for the U.S. Attorney's Office in New Hampshire.
After joining the TSA, in 2007 he was promoted to become chief of the greater Tampa Bay region. During several interviews with the Tampa Bay Times, he touched on the TSA's new approach to airport security and why he joined the TSA in the first place. He also said he couldn't comment on the effects of sequestration or how the TSA measures the success of these programs:
What are some of the new approaches to airline security?
(Administrator Pistole) has introduced what we calls RBS, or risk-based security. The idea behind RBS is that we move away from a one-size-fits-all philosophy and instead we try to focus our attention where the risk is greatest.
For example, passengers 75 and older. We feel there's less risk with that group. Children 12 and under. Military personnel in uniform. Precheck qualified passengers. And now the latest thing, which is now in three airports (including Tampa International), is "managed inclusion."
These special groups are screened pursuant to an expedited screening process. Because the risk is construed as being lower, we allow them to do things like leave their shoes on, leave their jackets on, leave their belts on, not having to remove their laptop computer from their carry-on, not having to remove their 3-1-1 compliant liquids from their carry-on.
The way I would say it is those are the groups to which we allowed expedited screening, which ends up being quicker.
Why is risk-based security the future of airport security in this country?
The future is to stop treating everybody in a one-size-fits-all manner.
Okay, you have three types of populations, essentially. Those as to whom you have virtually no risk. You have those on the other extreme who have extremely high risk, which is probably significantly less than 1 percent of the population. And then you have everyone else right in the middle. In the future, we're trying to expand that pool of people.
The more we can get everyone else through expedited security, the better the security because we're able to focus on that less than 1 percent that we're really worried about and the better the traveling experience for everyone else because they don't have to do things like take their shoes off.
Is risk-based security a response to TSA's unpopularity with the air-traveling public? Because it seems that people are always complaining about your agency.
I wouldn't say always. I think we get a lot more compliments than complaints. All you hear about are the bad things. But yes, this is designed to make everyone, not just the ones that qualify for prescreening — but everyone — experience a better time when they travel.
That's never changed in the last 12 years. We've always had that as our primary mission: provide world-class security and world-class customer service. The problem is those things can kind of conflict a little bit. We want the best possible security, but we don't want to be inconvenienced and at the same time, as taxpayers, we don't want to spend a lot of money on it.
There's a tension, a balance that has to be provided. Mr. Pistole is trying to improve the customer service side of the house without compromising security.
One of the tools the TSA is using is training its officers in "behavior detection" to attempt to intuit when passengers are exhibiting suspicious behavior and might warrant a closer look. But those techniques have been criticized as lacking a scientific consensus in the first place.
I've read the different opinions on it, the different schools of thought, and I think that those who say there's absolutely no scientific basis are absolutely not correct and I would point to the Israeli model, which is similar. I think if the Israelis know what they're doing and if they put credence into the system, then we can be confident that we're doing the same thing.
How do you measure how effective initiatives like risk-based security and behavior detection programs have been?
That's part of the problem with the TSA. That's one of the public affairs problems we have. How do you prove a negative?
Do you have any benchmarks set up?
We do, but now you're getting into the realms of statistics, and that's sensitive. We wouldn't want to divulge that to the bad guys.
Are are there any issues you've had to correct so far?
Well, other than the growing pains that a very new program has, not a one.
What are those growing pains?
You can ask, but I can't answer.
You spent decades as a prosecutor. Why move to airport security?
I was in the U.S. Attorney's Office when 9/11 happened. I watched the two Trade Centers collapse. Shortly thereafter I found out about the TSA and I said, "That's how I want to serve now."
I was always a public servant. I just decided to switch from DOJ to TSA. It's actually very helpful. When you know the law, that can't hurt.
Jamal Thalji can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3404.